The Skinny on Lean IT

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“IT is the next frontier for the application of lean in business.” – McKinsey

Lean is about creating the most value for the customer while minimizing resources, time, energy and effort.

In our series on what it means to be lean, we’ve discussed what you need to know about lean selling and how to improve your operations with lean.

Now we tackle possibly one of the most misunderstood areas of the practice: Lean IT in the IT department. Is your IT department typically viewed as providing real value to the business?

People in IT can spend a majority of their time putting out fires and problem-solving on the fly, which doesn’t leave much room for root cause analysis of business problems and processes. Thankfully, lean thinking (the process of incorporating lean principles into an enterprise) holds real promise for freeing IT to become a true partner in strategic business improvement efforts.

What is Lean IT?

There are books written about lean, websites dedicated to lean and groups whose sole purpose is to promote lean and events that revolve around lean. You can even be lean-certified in IT. What exactly is Lean IT? And the even more important question may be, “Does Lean IT hold any real value for my business?” The answer may surprise you.

What is Lean?

Lean is about creating the most value for the customer while minimizing resources, time, energy and effort.

According to the Lean Global Network, Lean IT is about creating the most value for the customer while minimizing resources, time, energy and effort. Since one of the main principles of lean is to eliminate waste so you can be more responsive to the customer, both internal and external, that’s a good place to start. IT can become involved first by using this principle to improve its own processes and services.

For instance, in this article for, Daniel Markovitz explains how three traditional lean concepts could be used to eliminate waste and free up time for IT to become more involved in the strategic value-creating activities of the company:

  • Concept #1: The lean principle of 5S (maintaining an organized workspace) – Applied to knowledge workers, this means ensuring that all IT employees have quick, easy access to the information they need to do their jobs (and that all unnecessary tools and processes standing in the way of providing quick, efficient service are eliminated).
  • Concept #2: Standardized Work – Have standard ways of providing services (such as checklists, due diligence or key questions to ask) that could prevent mistakes and oversights that add time and rework effort.
  • Concept #3: Flow – IT and other office workers are bombarded by constant interruptions that interrupt the flow of their work, thereby taking more time and energy to complete. Ways to counteract this could be such things as building blocks of time into people’s schedules where they can work on bigger projects that require a consistent effort.

Once their own internal process waste has been eliminated, IT is freed up to participate more fully in corporate lean initiatives such as rooting out information waste in the company. This could involve something as important as the poor quality of your customer information or as small as the spam cluttering your inbox (that can, however, be hugely irritating when faced with on a daily basis!)

Unfortunately, many businesses attempting to follow lean practices will suggest changes without IT being a part of the strategic team. Resulting mandates for revisions to the information systems of your company may be “tossed over the wall” for IT to implement when in actuality, process changes may be what’s needed.

Or, in other cases, the necessary capabilities already exist and just aren’t being used (or used correctly). In this case, the lack of collaboration will have simply created additional work for an already overburdened IT department without adding real value for the customer.

Lean is a Process (Not a One-Time Event)

Implementing a lean strategy takes time. And even once the initial plan is in place, or even after the first phase has been accomplished, keep in mind that it’s not a “one and done” approach for your IT organization—or for your company for that matter. Lean is a process that requires continual monitoring and modification. However, it’s essential to stay focused on the end goal. As author and Lean IT trailblazer Steve Bell puts it:

“It’s essential for IT to stay focused on the bigger picture—that software exists to add value to the business, so that business in turn can add value to the customer.”


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